It looks like Uncle Sam’s tree fort may be out of commission soon enough in Ecuador. In a familiar twist, the U.S. strategic footprint continues to ebb from yet another round of regional diatribe. Ecuadorian officials have fervently voiced opposition to renewing a bilateral agreement which currently permits a U.S. outpost on a national military base in the coastal city of Manta. Amidst the public jousting, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, acknowledged this past Friday that U.S. officials have lobbied the transfer of the FOL (Forward Operating Location) to the Pacific theatre of its northern neighbor.
According to the U.S. State Department, the current FOL stationed in Manta, Ecuador fulfills the following:
“The mission of the FOL is to help Ecuador protect the sovereignty of its territory against the transnational crime of drug trafficking. We are supporting efforts in the Eastern Pacific to intercept the flow of drugs that threatens the health, safety and economic stability of our hemisphere. Our cooperation with Ecuador is producing positive results.”
Translation: the post functions as a minor node for the fabled U.S. ‘War on Drugs’. Much akin to its counterpart in Colombia, U.S. civilian and military presence remains rather limited in its numbers and scope. Framed as a 10 year deal, the American FOL in Ecuador commenced in 1999 and is slated to expire, without renewal, in November 2009. The station is permitted at any one time to host up to 500 U.S. personnel, yet according to the State Department its current capacity employs far fewer:
“There are approximately 15 full-time U.S. personnel who work at the FOL to support the anti-drug flights. Depending on the number of flights at any given time, on average 150 pilots, crew members and other U.S. support personnel might be situated at the FOL for brief periods of a few days or weeks.”
These flights operate within the framework of aerial reconnaissance, essentially relaying intelligence for mobilization of Ecuadorian forces against suspected narcotics operations in their territories. Much of this is carried out by private contractors in the ‘grand’ Andean plan to eradicate the crop at its source.
While President Rafael Correa would like to wholly brand the outpost a bellicose infringement of sovereignty under the guise to dethrone his populist regime (though CIA appears active in country), it really amounts to King-Kong rhetoric among the region’s caudillos. The political move to rebuke the Gringos represents both an opportune moment to demonize complicity with American foreign policy, and to also undercut the Colombian position on FARC hits in Ecuadorian territory early March.
In recent years the traditional string of military assistance and training to pan-American countries has waned from levels of the 20th century fusion. Brazil, Panama, Argentina and Puerto Rico among others are ceasing to send their top commanders to the School of the Americas for operational training by U.S. forces. Among these countries, too have been the closing of U.S. operations centers positioned to maintain logistic projection of force and counter the surge of transnational organized crime (TOC) in the SOUTHCOM theater. The anomaly to this crescendo has been Colombia.
However, with the current freezing of the free trade agreement (TLC) in US Congress, it shall be a bit of a dance for President Álvaro Uribe regarding American operational expansion in country. Is he perturbed by the calls to further curb human rights abuses from U.S. public figures amid their very request to bolster American counternarcotics operations? While he entertains absurdly high approval ratings at home, his clout among the region’s trading partners dissipates with each passing confrontation. Can he afford ruffling the feathers yet again?
It seems likely that the already scant American presence in Ecuador will indeed wither by 2009, but it is yet to be gauged whether any strategic gain would merit either party with an outlying FOL on the Colombian coast. Perhaps more fundamentally it flaunts the U.S. loss of touch with the reality in Latin America.